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A War Anniversary the US Wishes to Forget

Feb. 4 marks the anniversary of a war America won — but doesn’t care to crow about. When the memory only produces shame and regret, you can understand why.

Such is the fate of the Philippine-American War, otherwise known as the Philippine Insurrection, which began on Feb. 4, 1899. It’s a reminder of a time when America’s dreams of imperial greatness got in the way of its democratic values.

Independent film director John Sayles made a movie about it last year called “Amigo.” On a scant $1.5 million budget, Sayles showed a humanistic vision of the war as seen through the eyes of Filipinos in one village and how they deal with the occupation by U.S. soldiers. How does one collaborate without betraying the nationalist rebels, many of whom are family?

But “Amigo” faded fast. So, here’s a little background:

The war started in a Manila suburb, when American soldiers shot at “the goo-goos,” one of the many offensive terms U.S. soldiers used for the Filipinos, and indicative of the racist tone in the war. The nationalists returned fire, and the sequel to the Spanish-American War was under way.

Insurrection doesn’t begin to describe the full-fledged war that lasted three years, with more than 100,000 Americans involved. Depending on the accounts you read, the Filipino civilian death toll ranged from 250,000 to as high as 1 million, counting those who died from disease or starvation.

The war was an American betrayal. Nationalists, under Emilio Aguinaldo, had broken off from Spain and, relying heavily on a promise of U.S. support during the Spanish-American War, started their own independent republic in 1898 — the first in Asia. That promise was broken when the McKinley administration sought the Philippines as a colony and tapped into a new patriotic fervor for American Imperialism.

Some historians believe McKinley instigated the Philippine-American War to gain support in Congress to ratify the Treaty of Paris. That’s where the U.S. dealt with Spain directly, cutting out the new Philippine leadership. Instead of becoming the independent country it had hoped for, the Philippines was ceded by Spain to the United States for $20 million. Aguinaldo went from president to insurrectionist, just like that.

The idea of winning “hearts and minds” and the use of waterboarding had their origins in this war.

We’re still dealing with those legacies today.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Emil Guillermo

Emil Guillermo is an award-winning American Filipino journalist who writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund He can be reached at

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